What do you know about Woodstock, Illinois? If you’re not from the surrounding area, I’d imagine you might have heard of it as the location where one of the greatest comedies of all time was filmed: Groundhog Day. That’s how most people know the town, anyway.
(If this is the point where you go, “What’s Groundhog Day,” you should read this post, share it with everyone you know and love, and immediately go rent the movie. It has nothing to do with this post, really. It’s just that good.)
The only other reason I ever knew about Woodstock is because I had a classmate at university who was from there. Saving his stories of debauchery and overall irresponsibility for another day, that’s about all I’ve got.
And with those two things being all we knew, a family member said it was cute and we should go check it out. If you know anything about us, you know that statement was good enough for us. Off we went!
Woodstock is a small town of about 25,000, located about 60 miles northwest of Chicago. While it’s a small town, it finds itself as the seat of McHenry County. This saddles the city with good things (it’s therefore a commercial center for the area and well-kept) and bad things (it has its share of homelessness and other social ills). While it has its ups and downs, it is also quite proud – especially when it comes to the downtown area.
The town center of Woodstock is a pristine square of brick streets, inlaid and decorative corners, and hosts several historic buildings. If you’ve seen Groundhog Day, you’ll recognize some of them. These traits and more led it to be named by the National Trust of Historic Preservation as one of America’s Dozen Distinctive Cities in 2007.
Just look at the old opera house, dutifully preserved as any historic center should be.
As we slowly strolled around the square, we noticed that most structures here are not only in great condition, but house many independent businesses. You’ll find bookstores, knickknack shops, clothing boutiques, and restaurants, such as a crêperie and this brewpub, aptly titled the Public House.
While we don’t know what “Church Block” means, this building caught our eye the most. Especially with its miniature clock tower on the corner. I believe an art gallery was preparing to open up shop on the ground level.
We also dug this sign for Schroeder & Young Barber Shop, just off the square. Too bad I didn’t need a cut!
Of course, with the good comes the bad, as previously mentioned. This old watch repair and sales shop is now closed, but at least the current residents of the establishment had the good sense to keep the amazing vintage sign.
The historic Woodstock Theatre also sits just off the square. While it shows new movies and appears to be expanding, it’s thankfully kept its old look.
You might also recognize this, if you’re into great comedies like I am. The old county courthouse caught some scenes in Planes, Trains & Automobiles. More importantly, it was the courthouse that held Eugene V. Debs, and where it is said he formed and learned his political views that would take him through quite a(nother) whirlwind in life.
It’s now an arts center, as you can see in the above photo. It also has interesting inlays showing its elevation above both Lake Michigan and sea level. I found this particularly strange, as it’s nowhere near water or anything that could be remotely considered a medium-size hill.
As we went along, we then came across the Swiss Maid Bakery.
This had been specifically mentioned to us, so we knew we had to pop in and see what all the fuss is about. Also, we love baked goods. And sugar.
We didn’t get into the finer details of the business, but we did get to spend some time talking to the girls who (wo)man the joint. Meet Ashley and Mary, your Woodstock dough slingers.
They and their associates come in at 3 or 4 every morning to start the day’s work. And from what we could tell, they had a lot of work and sell a lot of goodies. Along with some helpful clientele, they aided us in picking out some delicious treats to take away with us. We didn’t get our hands on any of the variety of loaves they still had left from the day’s sales…
…but we did order up a stack of this gloriousness.
After shooting the dirt and joking around with the lovely ladies of Swiss Maid for quite some time, we headed back outside before we ended up buying the whole store or threatening to take Mary and Ashley home for dinner.
Walking down the block and checking out more of the shops, we ran through the square’s park (also pictured at the top of this post). It’s quite nice, and was the setting for the Groundhog Day scenes in the movie. Despite the cold spring, flowers had started to bloom and it was a sunny day, making it all more understandable why people are charmed to move here or stay here.
Because we’re often drawn – er, always drawn – to all things food-related, our keen eyes picked out a very tiny shop just off the square called Ethereal Confections. This shop in question is a chocolatier. Because of course it is.
That salty, peanut butter and chocolate creation barely made it into that photo before I snatched it away and downed it in a couple seconds flat.
She had the unfortunate luck of being at the counter when we came in, which means we got to pester her for quite some time about the company and the chocolate game. She was a gracious host, answering our questions about the business and its history.
While it’s packed into a tiny space, the folks at Ethereal crank out chocolate confections for people all across the world. You can buy their goods in the store, online, or from several retailers across the USA.
It might be difficult to keep a retail shop at its full potential these days – especially in a small town – but the sky’s the limit when you expand your horizons. And the owners of Ethereal know this. We didn’t get to meet them, but they were gracious enough to let us take pictures in their store and grill Caroline about the biz.
They also clearly know their priorities.
Besides being an independent business based in small-town America, the folks here are also taking it a step further: Pretty much everything we saw in the store and on the website was dairy-free, gluten-free, and vegan. And while we are none of those things, it certainly doesn’t take away from the melt-in-your-mouth fantasticalness of their goods. I promise you this.
Walking away from visits with the fine folks at Ethereal Confections and Swiss Maid Bakery, it felt great knowing that there is both hometown support for local businesses, and far-flung clientele who can also appreciate these local flavors. Everyone here seems very proud of what they’re doing, and proud to be part of the Fabric of America.
Nothing is perfect, even in such a cute and thriving small town. However, everything has potential, and those who work hard and have vision can indeed succeed. Coming away from our short visit to Woodstock, that is more apparent than ever.
If you find yourself wanting to check out Woodstock on your own, the best thing to do is just show up. Otherwise, you can head on over to the website for the city of Woodstock, and find all sorts of info about businesses, local tourism, and more.
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Have you ever been to Woodstock? Did you know it from the movie? Any thoughts about our post? Make yourself heard in the comments!